Saturday, 30 November 2013

Country Lanes After Dark.

I gave myself the pleasure of settling by the fire with a mug of hot coffee tonight, shortly after returning from a chilly perambulation around the lanes of the Shire. There being nothing of interest on the TV, I picked up my copy of The Ghost Stories of MR James and read – for the umpteenth time – probably his most celebrated story, Casting the Runes.

‘Three months are allowed,’ said Mr Dunning’s diary on April 23rd, just as the late Mr Harrington’s diary had been annotated on June 18th. On the night of September 18th, poor Mr Harrington had died in mysterious circumstances. It seems he must have been menaced by some creature or other on a country lane at night, for he had shinned up a tree, fallen out of it, and broken his neck. Mr Dunning was, in consequence, a worried man.

It seemed appropriate that I read such a story. There is a spot on Mill Lane, you see, which is lit by the security light on the wall of the metal fabrication sheds. You turn your torch off at that point because it’s redundant, but beyond it the view is opaque. Pure darkness. You turn your torch back on, and before you stands a creature a little bigger than a large bear standing upright. Its ears are tall and pointed, two fangs curl upwards from its lower jaw, and its eyes hold you with the power of unassailable malice. You blink and it’s gone, so you continue on your way, smiling at your predilection for self-spooking.

It’s why I had fun writing occult short stories for eight years, and Mill Lane does seem uncommonly populated by imagined night demons these days. Church Lane, on the hand, I avoid after dark, since I’m more than half convinced that the creepy copse plays host to something that is more than the stuff of mere imagination.

Holmes and the Femme Fatale.

Following on from the last post, I was pleasantly surprised by Robert Downey Jr’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. It was a bit out of the traditional mould, of course, being consciously dissolute and mildly comical, but all the important elements were strongly represented.

His English accent was so convincing that I had to look him up to confirm that he was American, and for a notorious drug addict (now ex, apparently) his performance was controlled, subtle and self assured. In fact, I’d say he made a better job of Holmes than some leading British actors down the years. Only I wish he’d insisted on pronouncing Irene Adler’s name i’ray’na, not ay’reen. My mother’s name was Irene, and she was no scheming femme fatale.

*  *  *

My own femme fatale tonight is Stevie Nicks, although she has strong competition from some of these Belgian chocolates.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Resumption.

I took the new wellies for their first night walk tonight. They weren’t quite as comfy as the old Dunlop ones, but they’ll suffice well enough. And they do at least have heels, which the old ones don’t any more. They’ve been re-assigned to gardening duties now.

I went to see whether Mill Lane was still there, which it was. In fact, it hadn’t changed a bit. It was nice to see the pub lit up and open again after months of closure, although the farmhouse is still awaiting a new occupant. And the cottage along the lane had lighting little and low, just like the good old days. Oh, and I gave the little people a couple of verses of Raglan Road as promised.

The fun bit, though, was fancying I caught a glimpse of something pale following me. I turned the torch in that direction, but the road was predictably empty. Ah, but then my puddled brain took over. (‘Puddled’ is a colloquialism from my neck of the woods. It means ‘slightly mad.’ You know, eyes-rolling-and-gap-between-the-two-front-teeth type mad.)

Well, I had to smile, didn’t I? Coming towards me was a cream coloured Cocker Spaniel. I’d never seen one that colour before, and watched as it came on. It was walking slowly and limping badly on one front leg. Its head was hung low and turned sideways in submission, and the faintest of whimpers hung on the otherwise silent night air. It stopped, looked up at me with doleful eyes, and yelped, apparently in pain. Awakened from my sense of surprise, and my aching heart bent on the necessity of rescue, I moved towards the poor creature. As I bent forward, its eyes turned colder than the night air. A low growl quickly became a hideous snarl, and it leapt for my throat. The grip was decisive and the searing pain all consuming, but it was mercifully brief. The sudden gush of blood drained my consciousness to nothing as it hit the road with the sound of projectile vomit.

I laughed about it all the way to Rose Mount, where I wondered whether they would have their usual cascade of blue shimmering lights this Christmas.

And now I'm going to see whether Robert Downey Jr can make a passable stab at playing Sherlock Holmes.

Sex and the Headlines.

The most amusing headline I saw today read:

German Policeman Eats Friend

(They changed it later to German Policeman in ‘Cannibal’ Case, which isn’t at all amusing. I don’t know why they had to change it; heaven knows we need a bit of amusement occasionally in the news headlines.)

Anyway, the story has it that a German policeman and a ‘friend’ he met through the internet had a shared predilection for sex-with-torture. One of them ended up dead, and the other ate some bits of him.

Is that a problem, as long as they were both consenting adults?

*  *  *

A more mundane story concerned the fact that the French are considering making it illegal to pay for sex, and the proposed fines for so doing are pretty substantial.

Well, I entertain the most fervent distaste for prostitution because of my personal views on the purpose and value of sex, but they’re just my business. In practical terms, I believe prostitution should be legalised because my only practical objection is that prostitutes don’t pay tax. If they did, the extra money could be used to increase state pensions and enable a few more elderly people to both eat and keep warm in the winter.

Trapped in the Corporate Interest.

After my bad experience with my phone company recently – British Telecom, if anybody’s interested – I decided to explore the possibility of switching my phone supply to my ISP from whom I already get my broadband and anti-virus software. I talked to them at length and found that I could save a substantial amount of money every month, but several things bothered me:

1. They insisted I had a 24 month contract, with a substantial penalty being incurred in the event of leaving prematurely. But suppose they prove troublesome and I want to leave on perfectly reasonable grounds? I can’t do so without wasting a lot of money. This is, of course, one way in which the corporate world controls its customers.

2. It occurred to me that if you have several products through one company it’s all the more difficult to leave anyway, since you have to re-arrange not one facility, but several. That discourages people from leaving, and is another way in which the corporate world controls and traps its customers.

3. They insisted I accept a variable direct debit to pay for variable items like call charges. I don’t like that because it means I’m giving a company the right to walk into my bank account when they want to and take whatever they say I owe them. I’m not the sort to default on my bills, but I do like to pay them how and when I want to. It’s simply a matter of being in control of my bank account, and not allowing a company to have even a small measure of control over it. I have no option but to accept a standing direct debit for my broadband, but I don’t want to relinquish any more control than I absolutely have to.

The whole thing strikes me as a symptom of how society is increasingly being operated for the benefit of the corporate world, and not in the primary interest of the people who make up society. Given due consideration, I’m taking the view that there are times when principles are more important than saving money, so I think the ISP is going to have to go whistle. I’ll continue the search for a more acceptable alternative.

The Lesson of Black Friday.

We in Britain used to think that Black Friday mayhem was just a curious American phenomenon. We used to shake our heads; we used to think that we were above a crazed addiction to acquisitiveness and material values so entrenched that it could penetrate the veneer of civilised behaviour in minutes, just because a TV was on offer at half price. We were wrong.

Britain got the Black Friday bug today, and the result has been the same kind of chaos. Security guards have been busy; fights have been breaking out; there are stories of hospitalisations.

Can you wonder that I distance myself from the modern version of civilisation, based as it is on the modern version of free market forces? And can you wonder that it troubles me to see how easily the veneer of responsible and peaceable behaviour can be wiped away?

One director of a retail chain said that people are ‘responding well’ to Black Friday, so can you wonder that I think the wrong people are running the show?

Birthday Wishes.

It isn’t my birthday any more. It stopped about an hour ago. I waited all day for somebody to say ‘many happy returns,’ but nobody did. I had a card which said it, though, so I suppose that’s OK. I also had a miniature malt scotch and a box of twelve small Belgian chocolates. I like Belgian chocolates a lot; they take the confectioner’s art to an enhanced level, and are superior to any other expression of the chocolatier’s skill that I’ve ever experienced. I just had a lemon and coconut one, which was quite splendid.

Hey ho.

Pity the car chose to throw a wobbler on the fast stretch of the dual carriageway today and is going to need some attention, but I suppose you can’t have everything. And it's a pity the cheap shop had sold all its short-lived stock of Guinness Foreign Extra, but the Ben Nevis 10-year-old single malt is well up to the task of affording compensation.

I didn’t get many visits from America today either. I suppose that was because everybody was too busy consuming all those millions of poor birds that didn’t get pardoned by the President.

Ironically, last night I heard a piece of music which taught me what the phrase ‘loving life’ means. I’ve always wondered, and now I know. It was quite a moment, as you might imagine. And since it’s sort of still my birthday (since I was born at 5.05 am on the morning of November 28th,) I’m going to indulge the ultimate presumption of sharing the sort of music I’m wont to listen to loudly through the headphones in the early hours of the morning, just in case anybody’s interested. I can’t think of any reason why anybody should be, but just in case.

Many happy returns to me.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Respecting the Connection.

The thing I most remember about my mother’s funeral was the way the chief undertaker bowed to the coffin before we set off along the main road to the cemetery.

My mother was an unprepossessing sort of person who had lived an ordinary life in the backwater of an industrial town. She’d never had money, power, fame, or any sort of exalted status, and yet the man showed respect for a life now run, however small and ordinary it had been. It brought a lump to my throat then, and its still brings a lump to my throat eighteen years later.

I feel inclined to bow every time I see a dead bird on the path or a dead squirrel on the road. There’s something intensely poignant about a body with the life force extinguished, and I suppose the bow is a way of saying ‘Thank you for sharing the world with me. Without you and all the other small and ordinary lives, the world would be desolate place indeed, and my own life relatively worthless.’

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Defending the Fall Girl.

The British public continues to be served its shock horror fix in the form of the Nigella Lawson drug-taking allegations.

Shocking Revelations! screams one tabloid headline. Tell me, whose business is this but Nigella Lawson’s and those close to her? Who else has any right to be shocked? The readers of tabloid newspapers?

‘Ah, but,’ says a lawyer, ‘she’s an habitual criminal. That makes it the business of the law.’

OK, I suppose it does if you want to be pedantic, but let’s speculate a bit. Nigella Lawson is the daughter of a prominent Tory cabinet minister from the Thatcher era. She was also married to an extremely rich man. It isn’t unreasonable to assume, therefore, that she moves in exalted circles. So I wonder where she got this alleged cocaine from, if indeed she did, and I wonder how many more people moving in exalted circles might have got theirs from the same place – maybe including a few politicians, tabloid journalists and obscenely overpaid lawyers? Maybe.

No, I have no proof, but you don’t need proof to entertain reasonable suspicions, or catch the reeking odour of hypocrisy hanging in the air of exalted circles.

Courting a Clouting.

I saw some wheelie bin stickers really cheap in a shop recently, so on an uncharacteristic whim I decided to get the flower ones and give my bin the hippie treatment.

It was quite fun putting them on; I suppose it reminded me of less turbulent times as a 5-year-old in nursery school. But when I took it down to the lane this morning for emptying, I had second thoughts. Frankly, it looks a bit silly. I imagine pairs of mothers passing on the way to school, sniggering and nudging one another:

‘Would you say that’s yet another reason to chase him to the top of a burning mill with pitchforks?’

I suppose I could always take them off, but I’m not sure I don’t relish the prospect of adventure.

Mixed Fortunes.

Yesterday I spent half an hour getting very angry at the phone company and shouting at people in call centres. Well, who else is there to shout at when you’re being treated at least disrespectfully and probably dishonestly, and being overcharged in the process? I did ask to speak to a supervisor, but the young woman declined my request so she got the broadside.

Today I got my electric bill, and discovered that they owe me money. Isn’t life weird?

Vocal Addiction.

You wouldn’t think that at my age I could still be stopped in my tracks by a voice, would you? Two, to be precise: Lisa Gerrard and Zoe Mintz. They sing in harmony.

And there’s a serious point to be made here, about personal identity.

‘Are you a breast man or a leg man?’

‘Erm… A voice man, actually.’

So now we know. Pure redneck.

I’ve been at the Guinness Foreign Extra again.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Technology Python.

One thing has been apparent during the course of my (relatively short, so far!) lifetime. As each new gadget has come along, it has insinuated itself into the culture to such an extent that the mechanics of the culture have adjusted to make the gadget all but indispensable.

Gadgets cost money, and so the growth of personal and domestic technology has served to promote the power of the corporate world, and in so doing, created an ever-burgeoning imperative to live between the tram lines which it defines and controls. In short, it’s becoming ever more difficult to function outside the confines of a cultural norm based on money, short of becoming homeless or living the life of a hunter-gatherer in the wild.

This phenomenon reminds me of the Boa Constrictor, which gradually tightens its coils with each intake of the victim’s breath until there is no room left to exhale and the victim suffocates. I suppose that’s why I’m innately suspicious of new gadgets: I don’t just see the gadget, I see the tell-tale markings of a snake tightening around my chest. I still have to have at least some of them eventually, of course, because I’m not mentally equipped to be either homeless or a hunter-gatherer.

Shock Horror.

Big News: Celebrity chef Nigella Lawson has been accused by her ex husband of having taken illegal drugs!

Gosh.

She’s not the only one, of course. There have been several high profile cases recently involving people in the public eye being accused of, and sometimes admitting, the same thing.

Gosh again.

When I worked for an inner city charity, the organisers were well in touch with what you might call the city underground, and that included the drugs scene. One thing they learned was that there are plenty of establishment figures, celebrities, and so on who routinely use illegal drugs. Drug taking, according to those who should know, is perfectly common among politicians, the police, celebrities, sports stars etc, but for some reason it’s only the ordinary people at the bottom of the social heap who get routinely hounded for it.

Fancy that.

Approaching Winter and an Auspicious Day.

We’ve had a few sub-zero nights recently, so today I decided that a shift to winter rig was in order. Flannel sheets replaced the summer cotton ones on the bed, the chimney was swept, and the first coal fire lit in the living room. Now I have to decide when and whether to resume the night walks and regale the blog with tales of stars, subtle senses, and strange sounds beyond the hedgerow.

(I wonder whether Mill Lane is still there; I’ve heard some very strange sounds in Mill Lane. I expect it is; I doubt anybody will have dug it up or anything. As long as Madeline hasn’t been here without me knowing, of course. She likes digging things up.)

The thing is, you see, you get the best view of the stars from Mill Lane, and the creepy copse is all the creepier for being up on the rise and in skeletal aspect. And then there are the little people. I swear the Mill Lane crowd are most appreciative of my singing, and they haven’t heard Raglan Road for… ooh… seven months?

S’ppose I’d better, then.

*  *  *

And I gather it’s Thanksgiving in the American Colonies on Thursday. Better give thanks for me in that case, because it’s my birthday that day.

When I was a kid, your birthday was the one day in the year when your parents weren’t allowed to scold you. You could do whatever you wanted and get away with it. I tried it one year. It didn’t work.

Believing what you Want to Believe.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that there are several YouTube uploads of Karl Jenkins’s iconic piece Adiemus that are wrongly credited to Enya. They all include at least one comment, usually several, to the effect that the composer is Jenkins and the singer Miriam Stockley. Enya has absolutely nothing to do with this song.

Last night I found the complete version with the extra few bars at the beginning, and it’s clearly flagged at the top with a statement pointing out that it isn’t from Enya, but Karl Jenkins. There’s also a comment to the same effect. And then there’s another comment which says:

‘I don’t give a fuck what anyone’s shity (sic) opinion is, this is clearly Enya!’

What hope is there that reason might prevail in a world that contains such people?

Monday, 25 November 2013

Maddie's Potential Mishap.

In case you hadn’t heard, the Scots are to have a referendum on whether to remain in the UK or become independent. If they vote for the latter, do you realise what it will mean? The Union Flag will have to change; the blue will have to be bleached out to an unprepossessing white, and everybody’s current flags will become merely historical curios.

I’m concerned about my archaeologist friend Madeline in New York, who is wont to festoon walls with Union Flag bunting. Maybe she’ll have the presence of mind to bury it and dig it up again, exclaiming with gusto:

‘Aha!’

But then she’ll have to buy new bunting, and no doubt the flag makers are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect. I wonder whether there will be a Compensation for Flag Owners clause in the severance agreement.

Wondering.

Have you ever wondered whether the anti-virus software giants like Norton, McAfee and Bullguard covertly encourage the writing of new viruses so they can frighten the life out of people and persuade them to spend money on ‘protection?’

Just a thought.

A Less than Helpful Conversation.

I had an interesting conversation with my muse whilst walking along Church Lane the other day.

‘So tell me again, what’s the purpose of life?’

‘It exists in order for the Universal Consciousness to fragment and experience itself through a platform provided by the interaction of the fragmented parts.’

‘And what’s in it for the fragmented parts, which I assume includes me?’

‘You get to experience those things which are at their most vivid in a dense material form.’

‘But I’m not experiencing anything vivid.’

‘No, I know.’

‘So what should I do about it?’

‘No idea.’

Lot of use she was.

Sweets for my Sweet.

It seems the Shire’s major dairy farmer has diversified into sheep. There are sheep in fields where once there were only cows and silage-in-waiting. I’ve heard that the price of wool is going up, so maybe that’s the reason.

As far as I can tell, there are four different breeds, and one is a breed I’ve never seen before. Their fleece is uniformly brown, but their faces are black with a white line down the middle. And their tails are two-tone: two thirds black with a white tip. I daresay the breed has an official name, but I’ve taken to calling them Liquorice Allsorts.

So then I took to wondering whether Americans would know what liquorice allsorts are, or whether they were invented in America but are marketed under a different name. ‘Liquorice allsorts’ doesn’t sound to me like the sort of name an American would come up with, since there’s no room for ‘candy’ anywhere. ‘Liquorice allsorts’ sounds like a good old British name, the sort of name that would be dreamt up by the 7-year-old daughter of an Edwardian industrialist from Rochdale.

‘What d’ya think we should call these new sweeties, my little one?’ said Mr Basset to his prize angel, one evening in November 1907.

‘Well, they’ve all got liquorice in them.’

‘Yes.’

‘And they’re all sorts of different shapes and colours.’

‘Yes.’

‘So I think you should call them “Liquorice Allsorts”’

The angelic one danced in delight and clapped her hands gleefully, while her blonde ringlets swung with gay abandon and Mr Basset was beside himself with adoration.

‘Ee, lass, it’s a genius you are, right enough. Liquorice Allsorts it shall be.’

‘It’ll never catch on, Ronald,’ whispered Mrs Basset with the merest hint of forlorn frowning.

‘I know, my dear, I know,’ said Mr B under his breath, ‘but we can always change it to Rainbow Candies once she’s out of the way in boarding school, can’t we? Should do well in the American market, eh?’

The two of them smiled indulgently and everyone was happy. And liquorice allsorts did not die and leave an unclaimed crutch in the corner by the fireplace, but lived on to survive and surpass the onslaught wrought by chewing gum and Hershey Bars during the dark days of the 1940s. They live on still, and are one of JJ’s favourites.

And now there’s a breed of sheep named after them…

And as little Hortense Penelope Basset was occasionally wont to observe ‘God bless us, every one.’

This is what happens when I spend long periods in the pit. I lose track of when Christmas is, and I turn even stranger than usual.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Strange Concerns.

Sometimes when I’m taking a shower, I find myself suddenly possessed of an odd fear. What would I do if there was a power cut? The room would become profoundly dark (since I always shower at around midnight) and the water would run cold. It’s almost as bad as the fear of being buried alive.

Decision: I’ll get new batteries for my spare torch and keep it in the bathroom. I could always burn a tea light, of course, but that would be an unnecessary expense.

Another Popular Non Sequitor.

I’ve discovered that YouTube comments can provide a rich source of outcries and asides when you’re feeling pointless and permanently stressed and there’s no room in your brain for original thought. In such circumstances you can, at least, still react. So…

I’ve noticed that a lot of iconic popular music tracks carry at least one comment that says:

The 60s was the best decade for music ever.

The 70s was the best decade for music ever.

The 80s was the best decade for music ever.

And so on.

Do they believe it? Can they not see that this is not only a matter of personal taste, but also largely a matter of personal association? Most of us have a decade that stood out in some positive way or other. For me, it was probably the 90s. And during such times we choose to listen to music that compliments the richness or excitement, or whatever it was that made it special. And then we come to permanently associate one with the other, and voila: the best decade for music ever. It’s like saying:

‘I was married to my first wife when I won £1 million on the lottery, so therefore she was the best wife a man could ever have.’

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Gifts and Growing.

I met Mel for coffee in Derby today and was given my first Christmas present. It’s an appointments calendar illustrated with Japanese woodcuts accompanied by haikus. I expect it will be my only Christmas present, and the one I gave her is likely to be the only one I’ll give. Fortunately, I dislike spending money.

She also gave me a birthday card and present, since it’s my birthday next week. I’ve got to that point where I don’t want to stop having birthdays, but I do wish the numbers would start going backwards.

And I was saying to her that I’ve developed a certain respect for today’s young people – in general terms, of course. My generation mostly did what it was told and followed the Establishment leader (and most of them still do) whereas today’s generation of teens and twenties are more inclined to think for themselves. So although the question of standards sometimes gives cause for concern, I think they’re more mature than we were and have better values.

This is the first time I’ve been magnanimous in years. Must be getting old.

On Sharing.

It seems the cyber buzz word these days is ‘share.’ Only it isn’t the traditional form of ‘share’ which runs something like ‘I have two apples and you don’t have any, so I’ll give you one of mine.’ The modern version is more along the lines of ‘I like this and I have impeccable taste, so I’m going to throw it in your path whether you want it there or not.’ Hence the tired and meaningless phrase ‘have a nice day’ has been usurped by the fast-tiring and equally vapid expression ‘thanks for sharing.’ And everywhere you look, pages are littered with buttons that say ‘share with Facebook,’ ‘share with Twitter,’ ‘share with Google+’ etc, etc. The word that used to represent selflessness has come to be indelibly associated with presumption, and cyberspace is clogged with the dingy detritus of flaccid trivia.

Meanwhile, I have another bottle of Guinness Foreign Extra, which is going down nicely, and there’s yet another one in the fridge waiting for its chance to brighten some future post-midnight hour. I wish I could share it with somebody, but there’s nobody here to share it with. Have a nice night anyway.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Here be Llamas.


There used to be some of these in a field off Mill Lane, and they really do look at you like that. I found them a little unnerving, back in the day when I occasionally tramped the hallowed tarmac of Mill Lane in daylight. I don’t any more, not since I was informed that a few of the residents entertain the suspicion that I consort with undead maidens and children of the night (what music they make!)

I don’t, of course. I’ve never consorted with an undead maiden in my life. I did know a man once who appeared to totter uncertainly between being dead and undead. He was always pale, had no trace of personality, and never said anything remotely interesting in all the years I knew him. And yet he managed to become a father somehow. Conspiracy theories took root, as you might imagine.

And on a not-entirely-unrelated note, I saw some video footage of Enya tonight. I tell you, she could have been ten different people, courtesy of hair styles and make up. It reminded me that I learned early on to be suspicious of women who do the big hair-and-make-up thing. You just don’t know what you’re buying into. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter any more.

Being Denied the Right of Reply.

I found another Faun track I liked on YouTube tonight. The record showed that it had 856 likes and 5 dislikes, and somebody had made the following comment:

‘5 people either have no taste or can’t hear well.’

Well, as you might imagine, I wanted to make a reply along the lines of:

‘… or maybe they just have different taste than you. Or even – heaven forbid – they’re as entitled to their opinion as you are.’

But I couldn’t because the tinkerers from Google in their infinite brain deadness have been tinkering again, and now a few of the comments still have a ‘reply’ button but most don’t. This one didn’t.

I wonder whether there’s some way that we citizens of the world might stop Google messing up things that worked fine before they came along. Could we send them to their room without supper, for example? Lock them in the nursery with only their building blocks for company until they’re disabused of their delinquent obsession with destructive tinkering? Hope springs eternal that people power might prevail in the end.

(Oh, and by the way, the person who made that comment had a profile pic in which she appeared to be striving to look like Boy George. I never could stand Boy George; he always seemed insufferably limp and unmusical to me. That’s more of an aside than an outcry, of course, and I’m entitled to my opinion.)

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Like Minds.

You know, it bugs me when I read comments on YouTube in which people refer to instrumental pieces as ‘songs.’ Tonight I found this comment on a version of Pachelbel’s Canon:

FOR F sakes this is NOT A SONG!!!!
Do you hear people singing??? NO!!!

Hear, hear.

Shades of Darkness.

In order to show my respect for those few splendid stalwarts who still bother to check in here, I think I should pop my head out of the catacombs and wave.

The past week has been a bleak week, a week in which I’ve felt nothing but glumness, noticed nothing noteworthy, and haven’t even bothered to come to an opinion on anything of import. I’ve had nothing to say, so I haven’t said anything.

I can report, however, that I watched two contrasting films.

The first was the latest incarnation of the Snow White story – Snow White and the Huntsman. The problem with it was that the two female leads, Charlize Theron and Kristen Stewart, appeared to be on the first run through after a night of overindulgence and very little sleep. Neither did subtle; both did wooden with aplomb. I found myself hoping that the dwarves would soon appear, since I was convinced that things would improve immeasurably when they did. And I was right, because the dwarves were played by a bunch of notable British and Irish character actors. They knew how to act, and they did so superbly. The only other notable feature was that the writers and director ripped off a few ideas from LOTR, and did so badly. That’s about it.

Tonight I watched the 2012 version of The Woman in Black starring the post-Potter Daniel Radcliffe and the post-everything-else Ciaran Hinds (whose sister I once knew, incidentally.) It’s a truly Gothic tour de force in which Daniel gets himself well menaced by a vengeful ghost in an old dark house, immerses himself in black slime in order to lift the curse, and then finds that he’s failed after all and become just another ghost. It has a happy ending, though. He walks off along the railway track and into the dark mist with his late wife. Well, sort of happy ending. It’s a dark ending for a dark film, I suppose, and it’s a very good film. Unlike modern Hollywood horror which re-jigs a few tired old clichés, adds a load of noise and special effects, and then calls it horror, The Woman in Black goes back to Gothic basics and crafts a near-masterpiece. The atmosphere is heavy, the shock breaks are perfectly timed, and the subtlety is assured. And Daniel Radcliffe knows how to act. I actually got an adrenalin rush twice, which is twice more than I’ve experienced for many a long year. This one I would recommend.

And while I’m on the theme of dark things, I might also mention that I picked up a bottle of Guinness Foreign Extra last Friday. It was quite a revelation. Think heavy, strong, dark, bitter, and liquorice, and there you have it. It was a most splendid brew, and incredibly cheap for a beer of that quality. I’m hoping they’ll still have it the next time I’m passing through Uttoxeter. I’ll get two if they have.

For now, back to the darkness of the catacombs.

Edit to add:

Anybody who read this post earlier will know that I wrongly credited Elijah Wood with the starring role in The Woman in Black. Sorry. I get easily confused when it comes to small people and magical environments.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

A Mystery of American Culture.

Having seen Madeline of New York State attired in her ‘preppy ringwraith’ costume (a dufflecoat) I was sufficiently intrigued to google ‘preppy’ again.

It’s very confusing, isn’t it? It seems there are two versions of preppy:

There’s the traditional, North Eastern states, Ivy League version which aims to both mask and declare its self-perceived superiority with a show of idiomatic style. And then there’s the modern, general version which is more… laid back?

How would I know? American culture is a mystery to me in its more arcane dimensions. Rednecks I understand. Preppies? Not really.

Meeting a Superior Soul.

As I was coming out of the supermarket today, a man was walking in dressed in old clothes and Wellington boots. He could have been any age between about fifty and seventy. He mumbled something to me which I didn’t catch.

‘Pardon?’

He mumbled it again, only this time with an apologetic air.

‘Oh, right,’ I said, hoping he wouldn’t notice that I hadn’t a clue what he was saying.

He didn’t, apparently. He picked up a basket, walked into the store, looked up at the ceiling for a few seconds, walked back out, replaced the basket, and wandered off towards the town.

He had that lined, leathery, weather-beaten look you might expect of a tramp or a sailor, and he was a lot stranger than me. I was awash with admiration.

A Matter of Priority.

It was announced today that Britons have stumped up £13m towards the aid effort in the Philippines. That’s about £1 for every five people, which isn’t bad.

Meanwhile, a buyer in New York (in person or by proxy) paid £90m for a painting by Francis Bacon.

Yes, I know there are angles to this, but there’s surely still a point to consider.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

A Dubious Honour.

I took out the DVD of Snow White and the Huntsman today, and it led me to wonder whether it’s a blow to an actress’s ego to be cast as the wicked Queen. Being so cast means there must be a consensus that she is the second best looking woman in the film, usually by virtue of her advancing age. I wonder whether it’s the reverse side of every male actor’s ambition to play Hamlet.

Joining the Party.

I thought of a phrase today which just about sums up the way things have been for the past two or three years:

Just when you think it’s safe to go back in the water another shark turns up.

Yes, that will do nicely.

*  *  *

Notwithstanding the above whinge, however, I’ve become increasingly aware of yet another bit of abuse being perpetrated on the English language by the great unwashed. Having spent years getting hot under the collar by the confusion of ‘you’re’ with ‘your,’ ‘apples’ with ‘apple’s,’ and ‘imply’ with ‘infer,’ I now have to contend with people getting ‘compare with’ and ‘compare to’ wrong. They mean different things; they do.

But I don’t suppose it really matters except to pedants like me, which is why I’ve ordered one of these hats. I think it will suit me.

Betraying the Make Up Artist.

I saw a clip of something tonight in which an actress had been made up to look old. The problem was, she didn’t look old; she looked like a young actress made up.

That’s why I always cringe when I watch a production in which an actor plays both a character’s young self and old self. It’s never convincing. In all my years of watching films and TV dramas, I’ve never yet seen a made up young actor look genuinely old.

And that’s always confused me a little, because it seemed to me that with all the training, experience and modern techniques at their disposal, make up artists should be doing a much better job. So why do they continue to fail so consistently?

I think part of the problem lies with them. They will insist on overdoing the lines, folds, and waxy skin until they end up with something that looks like it should be seeking a place in a fairground house of horrors. I’m sure the real problem, though, is something they can’t do anything about.

My old neighbour was in his eighties. He had good skin, few lines or wrinkles, and a full head of hair. And yet he looked every bit his age. Why? Because he had old eyes. And therein, it seems to me, lies the problem.

Eyes age in a way that can’t be faked, either by good acting or make up techniques. Eyes always tell it as it is. Trying to make a young person look old is a lost cause, and I suspect it always will be.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Valuing Knowledge.

I had some time to kill tonight while I was awaiting a Skype call, so I decided to brush up on a bit of geographical knowledge. In the process I discovered two bone-shakingly interesting statistics that will no doubt remain with me for the rest of my days:

1. 56% of Belgians speak Flemish, which is effectively a dialect of Dutch.

2. 31 US states are bigger than England.

All I have to do now is convince myself that education has its uses. Meanwhile, I had an unscheduled cheese sandwich by way of celebration. I appear to be mildly addicted to cheese sandwiches.

Being a Little Bemused.

Do my eyes deceive me? Am I really seeing features on YouTube in which the big stores are inviting me to watch their Christmas ads?

This is weird. Adverts are things you turn off if you can, or at least they provide an opportunity to go and make a cup of tea if you can’t.

Why would I choose to watch Marks and Spencer’s Christmas ad? Why would anybody? Does the world of big commerce have us so well trained that we go to them and ask them to sell us things? Seems so.

This post was made in lieu of some highly impassioned ones on subjects like Tories with no brain cells, and stuff like that. I couldn’t be bothered.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Braving the Elements.

I couldn’t miss this one, could I?

I just read that a Russian artist made a protest against the ‘police state’ by going into Red Square, removing all his clothes, and nailing his scrotum to the ground.

Imagine the courage it must take to do something like that.  I mean, it can’t be very warm in Moscow at the moment. I would have taken some persuading even to roll my sleeves up.

Two Models for Living.


I woke up this morning with an enervating sense of betrayal. I was convinced that I’d been led into a trap from which there was no escape but death. It stayed with me for some time. I tried to remember my dreams in search of an explanation, but I could only recall small fragments and none of them fitted. Except, perhaps, the last one.

It was very brief, showing me an imagined scene from an old iconic British TV series called The Avengers. The background was hazy and appeared to show a melee of Mrs Peel and some kids, apparently unclothed for some odd reason, tending their hair. In the sharper foreground sat John Steed in his trademark suit and bowler, staring back at me with his equally trademark look: calm and unemotional, but always carrying some subtle meaning.

Steed was the ultimate self-contained individual, crushingly debonair and sophisticated. He was James Bond without the sexual edge, for he was beyond anything as tawdry as a cheap sexual dimension. He rose to every challenge easily and naturally, and the secret of his superiority was the fact that he needed nothing and nobody except himself. He was the perfect marriage of intellect, physical ability and unruffled panache.

I wondered where John Steed would be now. How old would he be? Ninety, maybe? Older, probably.

It led me to thinking that there are fundamentally two ways of living a life, short of becoming a monk. First there’s the Standard Model, in which you have adventures whilst young, and then settle down to build a generational pyramid of kids, parents, grandparents and great grandparents. It’s the one most people seem suited to; it’s the safest model because it leads you unerringly to a place where old age is right and comfortable. It provides all the support you need just when you finally come to need it.

And then there’s the Errant Model, in which you never stop seeking adventures. It’s a model in which you constantly move from relationship to relationship, place to place, occupation to occupation, and thrill to thrill. It’s a model which allows no real prospect of settlement, or at least no comfortable one. It’s the hazardous model, because it will most likely lead you to a place of isolation in which you can no longer do the only things you know how. And so the biggest challenge comes towards the end, just when you’re beginning to feel tired.

It goes without saying, of course, that choosing the Errant Model is always inevitable if that’s how you’re made. Choosing the Standard Model would be too big a price to pay for a more comfortable later life. Ironically, it would amount to a form of betrayal.

Compensation.

Vis-à-vis the previous post:

There was a time when even queens could lose their heads for exhibiting nothing worse than intransigence. And it was at such a time that people like me habitually came to an even more frightful end.

I’m grateful, of course. It goes some way to compensating me for having to tolerate shopping malls and fashion models. The moral seems to be:

‘Make it silly, make it safe.’

A Right Royal Rebel.

Rumbles of disquiet are appearing in the British media over the fact that the Duchess of Cambridge is showing traces of grey hair in photographic close ups. The fact that she’s only 31 is significant, of course, since it demonstrates that Her Royal Highness is dangerously unconventional in being either premature or precocious depending on your point of view. It’s being pointed out that most women don’t start displaying the first wisps of grey until they’re about 35.

Opinion is divided on what she should do about it. Some say she should do the proper thing and visit a good hairdresser, while others argue that her proclivity for going au naturel should apply as much to her hair as it does to her other features. For once I’m quite at a loss to find a firm opinion on the matter. Some might say I’m nonplussed. I wouldn’t.

And then there’s the matter of the coat. She has a favourite one, apparently, and it’s mulberry. Received wisdom (aka an old school friend who knows a bit about fashion) holds that she should wear brighter colours. The Duchess is undeterred, however: mulberry she likes, and the mulberry coat stays. My admiration knows no bounds.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Ten Thousand.

I gather the presumed death toll in the Philippines currently stands at 10,000.

Ten thousand people dead. Ten thousand. The figure bears repeating because it’s central to my point.

Each one of those ten thousand was an individual human being. Each one was a complex mass of loves and hates, joys and fears, predilections and priorities. Each one ate, slept, worked, argued and used the toilet. Each one was imbued with that mysterious thing we call life, and now each one is just part of a statistic.

Ten thousand. Five numbers. Three syllables. There’s something so mind-bogglingly incongruous about going from being a person to being part of a statistic that I can’t achieve full reconciliation. So when I hear the phrase ‘ten thousand’ in the news, I don’t see a number. I see lots and lots of individuals falling still and cold, and I see lots and lots of dispossessed life forces mingling in the ether, and I see lots and lots of other people weeping with grief. It all evokes a sense of horror.

But then I get confused because I know we all have to die some time, and when we do we become part of a statistic. So does it matter whether that statistic is one, ten thousand, or six million? Does scale have any relevance to the relentless ebb and flow of life and non-life? I don't know.

A Simple Little Narcotic.

The days are ever stressful at the moment, and will remain so until some fundamental changes happen one way or another. That’s why I’ve taken to listening to this little piece of music a couple of times every night.

It makes no claim to greatness or even musical significance, and yet it has an innocent charm that I’ve found soothing and mildly hypnotic all my life. When I listen to it now it reminds me of my childhood, or at least those aspects that I want to be reminded of – most especially the visceral tingle of carefree days when you can’t wait to get up in the morning because the sun is shining and there are games to play or fish to catch.

What’s odd, though, is that I felt the same way about it even when I heard it as a child. It somehow reminded me of an earlier, better time. It seems to have the capacity always to open the door on yesterday.

The one thing that bothers me slightly is that I only recently learned the name of the composer when I discovered the piece on YouTube. Fancy being called Ronald Binge. Back in more relaxed times, I’m sure a limerick would have ensued.


Saturday, 9 November 2013

One for the Nerds.

According to Yahoo News, today is a really special day and we should all be celebrating. The date today is 9/11/13. That’s a run of three consecutive rising odd numbers, which is something that happens only five times a century. It won’t happen again for another ninety two years, so anybody who misses it will be crying into their beer for the rest of their lives. Yahoo even claims that a ‘cult of oddness’ exists, seemingly led by some bloke from California. Well, blow me.

The words ‘barrel’ ‘scraping’ ‘of’ ‘the’ and ‘bottom’ are beginning to re-arrange themselves here. Unless, that is, I’m just being a rare old misery guts, and all that incessant thumping of fireworks filling the air earlier had nothing to do with Guy Fawkes but was actually the local celebration of Oddness Day.

And what Yahoo failed to point out is that today’s auspicious aspect only applies to those places which use the same standard date format as we do in Britain. By a strange coincidence, they don’t include California.

Jenny and my Strangeness.


The wren is a shy, secretive and permanently busy little bird, usually glimpsed only briefly in the hedgerow, the wood store, or scuttling in and out of the gaps between the stones in old walls. The family name Troglodytidae basically means ‘cave dweller.’ In Britain the wren is commonly perceived as female, based on an old belief that it was the female of the robin species, which is why she is commonly known as Jenny Wren.

She’s a pretty, characterful little bird, and one of my personal favourites. There’s been one darting around the garden all summer, and I always got a bit of a lift on those days when I saw her. I saw her again today; she was lying dead on the path, a little mangled.

It’s hard to explain to normal people why such a find is of such consequence to me, especially since there are so many more substantive things to care about like clothes and cars, soaps and shopping malls. I suppose it’s because the energy, character and presence of a bird means more to me than relatively characterless things like clothes, cars, soaps and shopping malls. In the final analysis, the only place to lay the blame is on my own strangeness.

A Slightly Venerable Day.

It would be hard to imagine a more innocuous time than 5.05am on a day in late November, wouldn’t it?

Well, once upon a time, a baby was finally thrust reluctantly into the world of mortal man at just that time. Shortly afterwards, a blackbird took up position on the windowsill of the maternity ward and began to sing. It’s unusual for blackbirds to sing in November, and the baby grew up to love their song more than most things. He recognised that it was one of the pure, priceless treasures that come absolutely free in the corrupt, conniving world of mortal man.

On the other hand, he had very little time for shepherds and men in funny hats, all of whom were conspicuous by their absence.

Feeling the Decline.

To me, a greenhouse is one of the great icons of summer. It represents heat, light, vibrant growth and productivity. It’s an environment in which you’re tempted to stand simply for its own sake, and for what it represents.

At twilight on a cool, damp November day, however, it cuts a forlorn figure. It’s become a dark, cold place. The windows are clouded with unwholesome condensation, and the viscera of once vital growth stands mouldering into the damp earth. I find it almost insufferably bleak and dispiriting.

Yes, I know it’s about cycles. I know.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Keeping it in Proportion.

The BBC’s man in Manila began his OB on the typhoon that was in the process of devastating the Philippines:

‘Filipinos are in for a difficult night.’

Don’t you just love the traditional British penchant for understatement still being exhibited by BBC journalists? Nice to know there are some standards left, eh? It is.

(I’d been reading about the impending event earlier. The news report said that it was likely to be the worst typhoon ever to hit the Philippines, with forecast wind speeds of nearly 200mph. We in Britain start panicking when they reach 50mph.)

The journalist continued his report, focusing mainly on the fact that hundreds of thousands of homes had already been destroyed by high winds, floods and mudslides. He said the damage was ‘unprecedented.’ But then he let us off the hook:

‘Filipinos are quite used to these things,’ he said. ‘They’ve had ten of them this year already.’

Phew! That's a relief. Nothing to worry about, then.

Dream Women and the Mysterious Male.

‘It wasn’t real,’ they say. ‘It was only a dream.’

Well, maybe it isn’t quite as simple as that. The idea that dreams exist in what is actually a different form of reality than waking experience has long interested me. This, as I understand it, is akin to the principle of shamanism. That’s why last night’s dream was so intriguing.

It was set in the extensive garden of an old country house, with paths, stone walls and ancient shrubs. And in it I had two female companions. The first was a young woman who was so thin and weak that she couldn’t walk, and yet she seemed perfectly happy and healthy in all other respects. She was so light that I was able to carry her everywhere, and did so as I went about my business. I sat her on a wall or bench, for example, while I was gardening, and in one ‘scene’ I held her up to meet the king who was visiting. He looked like a mediaeval king.

The other wasn’t a flesh-and-blood woman at all, but a figurine so misty in aspect that its identity was unclear. In spite of the vague outline, however, I could see that it was dark blue in colour with a shiny surface. I guessed it was made of either metal, glass, or polished stone. This figure needed no carrying; it showed up of its own accord wherever I went, and I venerated it because I knew it was sentient and contained the essence of some very special woman.

It’s been filtering through my brain all morning, and the meaning is pretty clear now. All except for one thing. I don’t know who the king was or why he was there, and that was the sharpest scene of all.

Surviving and Wondering.

One thing at least is going well. I’m one small beer and a double scotch down, and I feel fine. Last night I would have thrown up at least, if not blacked out. It’s what happened the last time I took a dose of flu and a double scotch simultaneously. And then there was that strange affair in Winchester all those years ago… But no matter, what’s concerning me at the moment is this:

Lady Gaga – Stentorian Germanicus, or whatever her real name is. She writes excellent songs, insofar as the genre permits, and is a first rate dancer. She also has incredibly powerful eyes, an aggressive alto voice, and a more-than-passable intellect. So why does she have to go around town randomly revealing her private parts to unsuspecting taxi drivers? Is this an arty thing, a New York thing, an Italian thing, or a media thing?

I’m just thinking out loud here, you understand. I don’t really want an answer from anybody I’ve come to like.

On Being an Irritated Person.

My English is going down the Swannee lately. Tonight I wrote ‘…about to be converted to an artificial reef.’ Now, I know that ‘converted to’ applies to the general condition, whereas conversion to the specific should be ‘converted into.’ Hence, you convert to Catholicism but convert into a Catholic. I’ve edited the post.

I’m doing this more and more often lately. I’m becoming more of an editor than a writer, and it’s something else that’s irritating me.

Mind you, I did get some amusement from reading a forum on the origin of the phrase ‘going down the Swannee.’ I read all about the Suwannee River, the slave trade, various popular songs, and even the American manufacturer of toilet paper. But it went on, and on, and on. Talk about ad nauseum. I wanted to add my own comment along the lines of ‘get a life, James,’ but you’re not allowed to talk on the internet any more unless you jump through a load of irritating hoops and join their club. (See, there I go being irritated again.)

The fact is, I don’t have much of a life either, but I still know when to call a halt and have a cream cake.